By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
The tsunami in South Asia took the world by surprise on Dec. 26, 2004. As the story unfolded, so did our realization of its enormity: one of the largest natural disasters in modern history. The entire news division of CNN rose to the occasion, placing its top international correspondents in key South Asian locations and creating round-the-clock programming of an event that mesmerized the world.
Correspondent Christiane Amanpour was in a remote vacation spot with her family when the tsunami hit. Correspondent Anderson Cooper was vacationing with friends in the Dominican Republic. While Ms. Amanpour flew to Sri Lanka to cover the unfolding story, Mr. Cooper was brought back to New York, where he anchored his show and two-hour specials for five consecutive nights. Hours after he anchored the 2005 ball drop in Times Square, he too was on a plane to Sri Lanka.
Ms. Amanpour and Mr. Cooper had previously worked together covering elections in Iraq. But this was the first major natural disaster each had covered. In the wake of the tsunami, there was no dearth of stories to tell. “In the end, there’s only one dimension-the human cost of what happened,” Ms. Amanpour said. “It’s the quintessential human drama.”
“Sadly, there were many stories to tell,” Mr. Cooper said. “You’d wake up every day and have a blank slate and see where the day takes you.”
Following a lead, they went to a village that had lost many of its children. “It was very moving to be in a place where the future of the village had been swept away,” Mr. Cooper said.
Both correspondents spent time following stories related to the derailed Queen of the Sea train, which was full of Sri Lankans on holiday for Boxing Day. Interviewing survivors, Ms. Amanpour was particularly taken with a 6-year-old boy who was on the train with his mother, sisters and cousins.
“He told me his story in this incredibly tiny, little voice and showed how he had clung onto the luggage rack of the train and managed to keep his head above water,” she said. “When [the water] subsided, none of his family were there, and this poor little boy was taken off as people came to rescue the survivors. His frantic father finally got the phone call that he was alive.
“Watching him telling me that story-and watching him with his father, the only ones left-I knew he would be scarred for a long time.”
The aftermath of the tragedy still resonates with both reporters. “In one moment, everyone was helpless together and there were amazing stories of courage and survival,” Ms. Amanpour said. “It was about trying to make sense of this unbelievable horror. The challenge [for news correspondents] is, I think, to keep your humanity and report on the human condition without giving away to oversentimentality or being overly cool about it.”
For Mr. Cooper, a haunting memory of covering the tsunami is the fact that so many bodies were never recovered. “Tens of thousands of people are missing,” he said. “It’s those people I keep thinking about.”
Other CNN correspondents reported from Thailand, India and the Andaman Islands in addition to Sri Lanka. “I’m particularly thrilled that duPont cited that CNN used CNN International,” Ms. Amanpour said. “It’s the first real public recognition of the breadth and unparalleled depth of our international coverage. International news is massively important, and there’s not enough on the air.”